Monday, July 20, 2020

TBR: The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

The Black Kids is a coming of age story about a privileged teenage Black girl set against the backdrop of the 1992 LA Riots. As the city burns around her, she’s forced to question who is the “us” and who is the “them”.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

I most enjoyed creating LaShawn. I think so many portrayals of young Black men from South LA are so reductive and I really wanted to write a character who reflected the humor, thoughtfulness, sensitivity, ambition and frustrations of people I’ve known and loved. I also wanted to make sure he was a complex character who makes his own mistakes and wasn’t just a symbol.

I most struggled with my lead character, Ashley. Some things about her came to me easily, and some did not. I wasn’t like her as a teenager at all, but many of her concerns and struggles were the same ones I had as a Black girl in decidedly non-Black spaces for most of my life. I wanted to make sure she was somebody who was messy, delicate, a little lost. She’s somebody who makes some serious mistakes, but she’s able to learn from them and come out the other side of it as a better, more thoughtful and more empathetic human being. I think some readers struggle with characters being unlikeable, especially female characters. The fact that Ashley was an occasionally unlikeable Black female character at that was a bit scary to write.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

Highs - I was elated and super fortunate that Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers pre-empted it. I had been absolutely terrified of people not understanding Ashley and her journey and not seeing the value in this book, so for an imprint I respected to have such a vote of confidence in it and me was incredible. I’ve worked with such a great team of people, and I’ve felt super supported throughout the publication journey.

Lows – In the midst of writing the book, both of my maternal grandparents died and it had been so important to me that they get to experience it and be proud of what I’d accomplished. Overall, I had an emotionally chaotic few years while writing it and there were plenty of times that I was ready to give up on it and myself. I think in a lot of ways the book kept me going and focused on something other than the weight of my feelings. In terms of the actual editing of the book, my wonderful first editor switched houses, and I was kind of afraid of what that would mean for the book, but luckily all my worrying was for naught.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Kill Your Darlings – Sometimes you just have to hold your nose and do it! We fall in love with passages or characters or even whole sequences that don’t end up serving the narrative. I actually kind of love cutting things out and moving things around and seeing if there’s a way to make something even more beautiful out of what was there. It’s frustrating for a while, but when it finally works, it’s like you get to fall in love with your story all over again.

How did you find the title of your book?

For such a simple title, it really is multifold. The Black Kids, as a title, originated with the short story. At first, I wasn’t sure if I should use it for the book, but it really feels like it encompasses the book as nothing else does. It reflects on Ashley’s journey of coming to embrace her blackness and what it means to be one of “the Black kids”. In a lot of predominantly white institutions, I’ve found that there’s often this othering and lumping together of “the Black kids” as a monolith and I wanted to confront that head-on. The title is also reflective of all the Black kids throughout the story—everyone from Latasha Harlins, whose death was among the real-life catalysts for the unrest, to the experiences of Ashley’s parents and her grandmother as Black children moving through a world that often doesn’t celebrate, protect and uplift black innocence.





DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.